The Hillside School
By Susan Stets
“I’m graduating from Hillside and am ready for any challenges middle school can throw at me,” wrote recent graduate David Aitchison in a paper he read at an assembly on the last day of school.
David will enter seventh grade at Moravian Academy this fall. He attributes his success to the strategies he learned at The Hillside School, nestled among fields of corn and new development in the hills outside Macungie.
“We all have challenges and we have things we are really good at,” he advised his younger classmates. “The teachers are here to help you, so ask lots of questions.”
David’s Mom, Tori Penske Aitchison, is grateful to have found Hillside for both David and his brother, Matthew, who recently completed kindergarten there. She says both boys have been nurtured and challenged, and the curriculum and teaching techniques have armed them with solid learning tools.
The K-through-6 elementary school for children with learning differences began in 1983 with just 10 students at the Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit in Emmaus. By 1989, word had gotten out that the school’s mission of maximizing the potential of children with learning differences through excellence in education was working. That year, with private funding from corporations, foundations and individuals, the school opened its facility on seven acres in Macungie Township.
No taxpayer dollars or government funds are used to support The Hillside School, giving its faculty the freedom and flexibility to reach and teach each individual child. Every student must go through a selective admission process to gain entry into The Hillside School. They are students with average and above-average intelligence, but they are not achieving at the level expected for their ability.
“These are bright children who need a different way of learning,” says Dr. Sue Straeter, Head of School. Most have language-based difficulties with reading, writing, spelling, and/or math, she says, but no child at The Hillside School is labeled.
Students learn strategies to overcome learning differences and function well in all aspects of life. Typically, they go on to mainstream institutions, and there are some great success stories. One is Paul Nonemaker, a 22-year-old alumnus who went on to St. Joseph the Worker School in Orefield, then to Parkland High School. He graduated from Temple University in May of 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and is applying to masters’ programs with the goal of becoming a counselor. ”I want to get my doctorate,” Paul said on a recent morning break from working with summer school students at Hillside, as he has done for the past three years. Paul says he still uses the strategies he learned here, including reading, time management and study techniques he will use throughout his life.
“I always got the help I needed from teachers and staff here because I felt comfortable asking for help,” Paul said. He attributes that, in part, to the small class size — typically eight students to a classroom. Paul enjoys helping others, and would like to come back to do that some day on a more permanent basis at Hillside.
A multi-purpose gym, well-equipped art room, counseling offices, and great playground are just some of the things that contribute to the well-rounded child here at Hillside. In fact, one boy who went on to earn an engineering degree from the University of Arizona laughs that the main reason he wanted to come here as a child was Hillside’s “cool playground.”
It’s an inviting campus with caring staff in a vibrant community that still harkens to the days when all you could see for miles were farm fields. It’s a cheerful, pleasant environment where children learn to thrive and parents learn to smile again.
“My advice for parents is to see Hillside as an opportunity, not the last resort,” Aitchison says. “I think many parents try everything else first, give their current schools one more year. I didn’t want to wait for tough challenges. David was only going to get one first grade year, and I wanted the best for him. Every year has been exactly what David needed. We wanted the same for Matthew.”
For more information on The Hillside School, go to hillsideschool.org, or call 610-967-3701.
Susan Stets of Coopersburg has written for national publications including American Profile Magazine and Delta’s Sky Magazine, as well as publications in Berks, Bucks, Lehigh and Montgomery Counties. Susan fell in love with the Lehigh Valley on various writing assignments and moved here in 2005.